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All Over the Map

What You Will in San Francisco, Of Equal Measure in Los Angeles, and Scramble! in Westport, CT. logo
Roger Rees
(© J. T. MacMillan)
"It's only me and the microphone. It will be one person telling stories to other people. That's been going on since people lived in caves," says Tony Award winner Roger Rees about his one-man Shakespearean show What You Will, which begins a limited run at ACT in San Francisco on July 18. Indeed, for Rees, the thrust of the Bard's work is not about Elizabethan garb or big, moving scenery, but the words themselves. "If you take away a lot of the pretension and grandness from Shakespeare, a true poeticism is revealed," he says.

His attention to Shakespeare's language can certainly be traced back to the artist's work at the Royal Shakespeare Company with directors like John Barton and Trevor Nunn. "Their new readings of what had hitherto been rather Victorian and ornately decorated productions actually paved the way to what nowadays is sometimes terribly eloquent productions where the words are the scenery," says Rees. "You get back to the language that Shakespeare was enjoying in 1590. The Elizabethan mind wanted and demanded that one word could mean 50 things. What Shakespeare offers us is not ambiguity; it's choices."

While What You Will -- which has previously been performed in Washington, D.C. and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (where Rees was previously the artistic director) -- includes passages lifted from Shakespeare's most dynamic texts, it also includes more contemporary anecdotes. Says Rees: "I'm astonished to say, but people are really pleased to hear what happened to me, the way I got a little bit more confident, the people I've met, and the things I didn't know."

-- Zachary Stewart


Michael T. Weiss and Michole Briana White
in Of Equal Measure
(© Craig Schwartz)
The new play Of Equal Measure, now getting its world premiere at Los Angeles' Kirk Douglas Theatre, marks the sixth collaboration between playwright Tanya Barfield and director Leigh Silverman, and the director admits that it took her a little while to warm up to the subject matter; using the story of a fictional White House secretary named Jade Kingston (played by Michole Briana White) to show how U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (played by Lawrence Pressman) ultimately segregated the staff of the White House, eliminating all important African-Americans in power.

"When Tanya first started telling me all the history -- and no one does as much research as she does -- my eyes started to glaze over," says Silverman. "But ultimately, the play has so many resonances to today -- from little things like how Wilson made all restaurants replace the word 'sauerkraut' with 'Liberty Cabbage' to the larger point of how one administration can simply set a cause like the civil rights movement back 25 years. But we haven't made these comparisons pointed; we want people to hear them and just absorb them."

While Silverman has directed plays set in many time periods -- ranging from the 1950s to the present-day -- Of Equal Measure presented her with a distinct set of challenges. "First, just trying to convince the men in the cast to wear three-piece wool suits in the middle of summer in L.A. was not easy," she says. "But we had lots of challenges, like trying to learn how people of different races related physically back then. Our dramaturg read lots of plays from that period to see if handshakes were common; they were, but not between races. Instead, there's a lot of hat tipping going on. Or trying to find authentic movie seats from this period on short notice, when Tanya changed a scene from a cafe to a theater."

Barfield and Silverman also watched actual newsreels of Wilson, but didn't want Pressman to do an exact imitation. "Our goal was to stress certain things about him -- like being a strong orator -- without asking Larry to replicate him," she says. "What's exciting about this play is that the audience comes in with some sense of who Wilson was, we show them what they think they know -- and then we pull the rug out from under them."

-- Brian Scott Lipton

Scramble! cast members Tom Beckett,
Jennifer Mudge and Matthew Rauch
(© Kathleen O'Rourke)
Audiences at the Westport Country Playhouse may not realize it, but David Wiltse's Scramble! previously played Florida Stage under the title Hatchetman. "A lot of people thought it was a thriller," notes Wiltse. Instead, the play, which has been heavily revised, is a farce set in the halls of the office of a golf magazine -- which is appropriate since the playwright is an avid golfer.

"When I wrote Doubles, which takes place in a tennis locker room, I was an avid tennis player," he says. "I also did occasional freelance articles for Tennis Magazine, which was housed in the same building as Golf Magazine, so I got to see how office life worked."

Director Tracy Brigden helped Wiltse work on the script while she was directing another one of his works, A Marriage Minuet, at the Playhouse. Their close relationship -- which Wiltse calls, "a great boon" -- is particularly important to him on a difficult play like Scramble!

"It requires jigsaw like attention to detail. It's like a crossword puzzle, you can't suddenly change the meaning of one word, because the whole thing falls apart," he says. "Many farces rely on the physical and the situational aspects of the comedy. I tried to make the dialogue as different and worthwhile in itself as the rest of it."

-- Tristan Fuge


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